The Victorian Era, named after the period of Queen Victoria’s rule over the British Empire, lasted from 1837 till 1901. It was one of the most flourishing periods of the Empire, especially for the capital London. The Victorian period brought the city a lot of prosperity, and it became the world’s largest city. Besides the immense increase in the population of London, the number of houses grew rapidly as well. At the beginning of the nineteenth century a population of one million people lived in London and that number increased to almost five million by the end of it. According to Peter Ackroyd, “every eight minutes of every day of every year, someone died in London; every five minutes, someone was born.”1 London also housed a high number of immigrants; by 1840 17 per cent of London’s population were immigrants. By 1870 more Irishman were living in London than in Dublin, and more Catholics than in Rome.2 Russians and Poles resided in London as well, and from 1850 the Chinese were also settling, arriving on ships. Soon London became the largest city in the world and it maintained this position for a hundred years, up till 1925, when New York took over this title.3
Because of this expansion of the population more houses were built. The Building News reported at the time that “the fungus-like growth of houses manifests itself stretching from town to suburb and village”.4 Victorian London was a permanent building site. 5 In fact, so many houses and buildings were erected that most of the London one sees today is “Victorian either in its fabric or its layout”.6 The destructive Victorian building attitude had a lot of consequences that could be regretted these days. Numerous churches were demolished to give way to new buildings, even the ones with great historical roots such as many Wren churches. Christopher Wren designed St. Paul’s Cathedral – one of London’s most visited historical buildings today – and with that knowledge in mind, the importance and the immense loss of other Wren churches can be understood. Another consequence of the aggressive building was the disappearance of the so called pleasure garden, a public garden used for recreation. These gardens were built over by houses, other buildings and later on by railways.
Houses spread in all directions and the city became a “bricken wilderness”7 and a labyrinth. London’s inhabitants experienced an endlessness of streets because the city grew larger and larger. The reason it could become a labyrinth was that for the first nine decades of the nineteenth century, London did not have an elected body which was responsible for its housing (or for its transport, schools or hospitals).8 Therefore a chaos of buildings could grow without any type of planning. It was not before 1889 that the wild growth of buildings would stop due to the introduction of the London County Council, the government body that was elected to solve the city’s worst social problems, including the chaos of its housing. As a result of this election the London County Council could put a stop to the spread of London’s labyrinth and prevent it from expanding irregularly throughout the city. Of course, London still grew massively after 1889, but the irregular Victorian growth, which made the city into a maze, was slowed down.
Because Victorian London was such a labyrinth, and because it was constantly expanding, people could get lost in their own city. London became so large that it created a secret side to itself. No one in the capital could ever know all of London through and through and there would always be secret places because of its constant expansion. It is said that London could be mapped, but it could never be fully imagined or experienced.9
One of the developments vital to the image of Victorian London was the arrival of the railway. The first railway in London – in fact the first railway in any capital city in the world – was built in 1836, and at the start of the
1 Ackroyd, Peter. 2001 London: The Biography. London: Vintage: p. 576.
2 Ackroyd: p. 576.
4 As quoted in Porter, Roy. 1994 London: A Social History. London: Hamish Hamilton.: p. 306.
5 Wilson, A.N. 2005 London: A Short History. London: Phoenix: p. 74.
6 Ackroyd: p. 586.
7 Ackroyd: p. 579.
8 Wilson: p. 80.
9 Ackroyd: p. 586.